I didn’t so much read this novel about early aviator Beryl Markham as feel it, being swept up into the wild, diverse world of colonial Africa every time I opened the book. Normally I much prefer biography to any fictionalized version of a real person’s life, especially someone like Markham who’s penned a wonderful account of her own adventures, but Paula McLain brings Markham to life on the page by writing her rather amazing story with such insight and feeling that while I was reading the book it seemed impossible that McLain hadn’t lived it all herself. In an author’s note at the end she explains some of the strong connection she felt with Markham.
Circling the Sun covers the first part of Markham’s life, from her rough and tumble early childhood, through the beginning of her almost life-long career training race horses, until her record setting flight across the Atlantic–a time that extends from the turn of the last century to the interval between the two world wars. Her story is rich with rift valley scenery, intersecting cultures, and interesting people, including native Africans, Asian immigrants, and European colonials. Markham maintained a close, family-like like relationship with the the Kipsigis man who was her best friend in childhood, and she mingled with the likes of Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa), Denys Finch Hatton (a lover of both Blixen and Markham–Dinesen left Markham out of her book), the many times married Idina Sackville (Nancy Mitford’s model for The Bolter in her book The Pursuit of Love) and the future (if brief) King Edward VIII.
McLain, a poet as well as a novelist, writes with eloquent beauty. She made what I think is a bold choice to tell the story in the first person, but for me it worked, pulling me in so I felt like I was walking around under the Kenyan sun myself. Not being a big fan of Hemingway I hadn’t read McLain’s earlier book, The Paris Wife, when it came out, but I will certainly be getting my hands on a copy now.
I read an advanced review copy of Circling the Sun supplied to me at no cost by the publisher. Review opinions are mine.